How a support group went virtual to help kids cope with COVID-19 anxiety
As the pandemic spread, many young people experienced anger, stress—even depression. But a Save the Children initiative supported by Johnson & Johnson is teaching them how to manage their difficult emotions.
Like so many children across the country, Robbie went to school one day in March 2020 and was told he wouldn’t be coming back for a while. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, his teacher told him and the rest of his third-grade class that they would finish out the semester at home, where they would attend classes virtually.
At first, Robbie was thrilled—any excuse to stay home and spend the day on his computer was fine by him. But as time went on, the novelty wore off and the isolation began to take a toll. Robbie began to experience anxiety, stress and anger. He was hardly alone.
One in three parents in the U.S. who responded to a survey in April 2020 reported that their child was more sad, depressed or lonely since the onset of the pandemic, according to a study in Children and Youth Services Review. And a 2021 study in JAMA Network Open found that kids experiencing pandemic-related disruptions to their regular in-person school routine may be uniquely susceptible to poor mental health outcomes.
That was certainly the case for Robbie.
“I was happy at first just alone in my room doing homework,” he says. But soon enough, he found himself missing his friends and overwhelmed by online learning. By the end of a typical virtual lesson, “I had, like, 50 tabs open—it was too stressful.”
Seeing that he was struggling with the rigorous pace of remote learning and the large number of students participating in virtual classes, Robbie’s parents decided to enroll him in a virtual independent study program at his school in rural California. But while that style of learning allowed Robbie to work at his own pace, the lack of contact with his friends and classmates continued to be a challenge.
Enter Journey of Hope, a resilience-building program from Save the Children that’s supported by Johnson & Johnson. The two organizations have partnered for 27 years in the U.S. and around the world through innovative health and development programs like this one.
The Challenge: Keeping Kids Connected During COVID-19
Save the Children launched Journey of Hope in 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as a way to help kids build healthy coping skills through games, stories and positive behaviors in a small group setting. The goal is to help children identify emotions and understand that it’s normal to feel whatever it is they’re experiencing—anger, sadness, frustration—during scary or difficult situations.
In early 2020, when arguably the scariest, most difficult situation imaginable spurred a rethinking of the way we all live our lives, Save the Children transitioned Journey of Hope to a virtual experience. Instead of gathering in person, kids began to meet online.
Robbie’s mom Donel, a schoolteacher, is a facilitator for the program at Robbie’s school. “With COVID-19 keeping kids at home, they weren’t getting to socialize as they normally would,” she recalls. “Seeing them and their families struggle makes the Journey of Hope opportunity extra valuable. The kids see that even in the middle of the pandemic, Journey of Hope is there for them.”
She saw an upside for Robbie, in particular: “I thought, ‘Gosh, he’s the perfect candidate for Journey of Hope.’”
“Initially, he didn’t want to do it,” Donel says. “When you’re in a funk, you don’t want to jump online and share your feelings. But I said, ‘I think you’ll end up liking this.’”
Sure enough, Mom was right. Ultimately, not only did Virtual Journey of Hope give Robbie the opportunity to interact socially with his friends and classmates in a safe, COVID-free environment, it also provided a way for him “to share his feelings and ideas and learn that he is not alone,” says Donel.
Tools That Teach Beyond the Pandemic
Now, it’s been almost a year since Robbie completed the program. He’s back at school in-person in the fifth grade, but he still relies on some of the techniques he learned through Virtual Journey of Hope. “I have this red ball from the program,” says Robbie. “When I get mad or stressed, I count to 10 and I squeeze it.” He also keeps a journal and practices other mindfulness activities such as taking a deep breath whenever he feels anxious.
“These are emotions we all have—everybody feels sadness, everyone feels fear, everyone worries,” says Donel. “I highly recommend the program. It’s a neat way for kids to learn how to manage those emotions.” In fact, Robbie’s 7-year-old sister is now participating in Journey of Hope. And Robbie liked the program so much he’s planning to enroll again; this time, he’ll meet with other participants in-person at his school.
“He’s come out of his shell,” says Donel. “His self-esteem has improved and Journey of Hope had something to do with that. Now that he’s back at school, he has an air of confidence. As a teacher and a mom, that’s nice to see.”